News | Politics of Memory / Antifascism - Southern Cone Remembering the Uruguayan Coup

Five decades later, many on the Right would like to pretend the dictatorship never happened


[Translate to en:] Jährlich erinnern Aktivist*innen und Angehörige mit einem Schweigemarsch in Montevideo/Uruguay an die Verschwundenen der Militärdiktatur und fordern Aufklärung.
Activists and relatives honour the victims of the Uruguayan military dictatorship once a year at the Marcha del Silencio.



CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Photo: Flickr / Marta Gonz

Although a coup d’état always represents an institutional rupture, in Uruguay’s case, the state of exception had existed long before 27 June 1973, the date when de facto president Juan María Bordaberry dissolved the Uruguayan Parliament. With a stagnant, crisis-ridden economy slashing real wages and sparking industrial action, “prompt security measures” allowing the executive branch to suspend constitutional guarantees in cases of “popular unrest” had been in force seen 1968, leading to multiple discretional arrests of trade union and student leaders and political activists.

Azul Cordo is a journalist. She writes about human rights, environmentalism, and reproductive rights for La Diaria Feminismos and LATFEM.

Mauro Tomasini is coordinator of SERPAJ, a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation partner working on civil and political rights and state terrorism.

Translation by Catalina Ann Saraceno.

While death squads patrolled the streets in coordination with the Fuerzas Conjuntas (a combination of the Armed Forces and the police), disbelief grew in the political class as Chamber of Commerce representatives took up posts in ministries and state companies. The economic crisis shattered the welfare state in this “Switzerland of South America”, as the country called itself due to the high levels of social prosperity and democratic stability maintained since the late nineteenth century under the political model known as Batllismo, named after former Uruguayan president José Batlle y Ordóñez.

The generals who launched the coup only governed for 16 years, but their influence over Uruguayan politics persists to this day, as can be seen in their ongoing attempts to obfuscate and sabotage truth and reconciliation in the country. Indeed, 50 years after the overthrow of Uruguay’s democratically elected government, the generals, together with conservative and right-wing forces across the country, would rather it not be mentioned at all.

Uruguay’s Darkest Decade

While the dictatorship in Chile killed the highest number of people relative to the total population and Argentina’s boasted the highest number of forced disappearances, the Uruguayan dictatorship favoured torture and prolonged mass political imprisonment as its main forms of repression. In a country whose population has remained stable at 3 million for several decades, some 10,000 people were confined to prisons and barracks in the first three years of the so-called “prompt security measures” (Medidas Prontas de Seguridad, 1968–1971) alone. The leadership of the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN-T) was eliminated in 1972, and the organization’s operations broken up.

Despite this, Bordaberry’s government furthered its repressive measures. The dissolution of Parliament and local councils was followed by twelve years of state-sponsored terrorism, in which political parties and trade unions were proscribed, the press censored, and cultural institutions such as the El Galpón theatre shut down. Individual liberties and the right to assembly were suspended.

In addition to the mass imprisonment of trade unionists, social movement organizers, and political activists, the dictatorship established a classification of citizens as “A”, “B”, or “C” depending on how “dangerous” they were to the state. Those categorized in group C, widely applied to leftists of various stripes, faced removal from public positions (including teaching posts), difficulties finding alternative employment, persecution by the security forces, and social stigma.

To its credit, the first Frente Amplio government authorized a series of investigations by historians and archaeologists working as forensic anthropologists, yet they faced many limitations in terms of time, human resources, and money, and had to tackle discontinuity and difficulties in accessing official archives.

Some 380,000 people went into exile and 197 were detained and/or disappeared — mostly in Argentina, while others were kept in Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, or Uruguay itself.

The Junta of Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces justified the repression by citing national defence, claiming in a government declaration that they were “liberating the mass of workers from the herd mentality and sense of submission that false leaders, following anti-national ideologies and interests, have sought to inculcate in them”.

There was tough, determined resistance for the first two weeks after the coup. Workers and students occupied factories and universities in a historic general strike. In the years that followed, the resistance was organized and sustained underground, with pot-banging protests by women residents of housing cooperatives, and a massive “no” campaign in the 1980 plebiscite on a proposed modification of the Constitution to perpetuate the military government. Nevertheless, it was not until 1984 that a general strike forced the government to hold elections and restore parliamentary democracy.

Reckoning with the Past

In economic terms, the historian Jaime Yaffé has reviewed various analyses written since the return of democracy. He notes that while some economists claim that one of the dictatorship’s main goals was to impose a neoliberal strategy that laid the groundwork for “pro-market structural reform” in the 1990s, others say “it is hard to identify a single valid economic model for the whole dictatorial period”, as it “alternated between two models seen in the different growth strategies recognizable before and after 1978”.

Although there was macroeconomic growth in nine of the twelve years of the dictatorial regime, Yaffé stresses that during the dictatorship, “the national economic structure was reconfigured to the detriment of the agricultural sector and in favour of industrial and financial activities”, and unemployment rose to 14 percent by 1984. There were also widespread and sustained price increases for food and clothing throughout the dictatorship, with inflation at 78 percent vis-à-vis 1973 and real wages half of what they had been worth in the coup year.

During the first democratic government of Julio María Sanguinetti (1985–1990), public discourse tended to legitimize the state-sponsored terrorism. Apologists for the dictatorship argued that it was impossible to try military figures and civilians complicit in the repression due to Uruguayan democracy’s fragile state.

The official narrative of the recent past rested on two pillars: the “theory of the two demons”, an argument that guerrillas and the military bore equal blame, allowing the political class to regain legitimacy and absolving the state of any complicity in the horror committed in its name, and a policy of forgetting the past and “turning the page” on that particular chapter of history.

In the 1990s, the voices that spoke out against the forgetting and the silence, those that raised the slogans of “truth, memory, justice, and never again”, came from human rights organizations, trade and student unions, progressive political organizations, and the radical Left. Victims’ testimonies were and continue to be a vital tool in constructing a democratic memory of the recent past.

The Return of the Right

After fifteen years (2005–2020) of progressive governments under the Frente Amplio, in 2020 the National Party won the national elections and once again assumed the Uruguayan presidency. Victory came thanks to a centre-right alliance called the Multicolour Coalition, formed by the National Party together with the Colorado Party, the Independent Party, the pro-military party known as Cabildo Abierto (literally “Town Hall Meeting”), and the Partido de la Gente.

This coalition’s political and economic orientation stems from the 1990s, a trajectory built on as the Frente Amplio consolidated its national electoral support. Since the beginning of this century, Uruguay has been split down the middle, with centre-left sectors on one side and centre-right on the other. The logic of the political party system was sustained throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries because any formation conceived outside of this logic was divided, tended to fade, or had little political influence.

Records indicate that over 5,000 people were imprisoned during the Uruguayan dictatorship.

The current right-wing government raised concerns over how much it would respect the Frente Amplio government’s advances in areas of human rights, such as the decriminalization of abortion, state regulation of the marijuana market and same-sex marriage, and the position it would take on human rights violations during the dictatorship.

This latter point was cause for further concern with the growth of Cabildo Abierto, a party founded in 2019 when former Army Chief Guido Manini Ríos was relieved of his position after criticizing the judicial branch during the trials of military figures for crimes against humanity. Led by Manini, this party now unites the far-right factions of traditional parties. Its members include military figures (active or retired) and officials such as the lawyer and now senator Guillermo Domenech, who during the dictatorship passed summary administrative proceedings to dismiss teachers.

Cabildo Abierto polled 11 percent of the votes in the 2019 elections, leaving it with three senators and eleven deputies, as well as a role in the Ministry of Housing and Health.

This new party’s classic anti-communist, anti-rights approach appeals to certain dynamics present in the region and internationally. As Argentinian historian and journalist Pablo Stefanoni writes in his book ¿La rebeldía se volvió de derecha?,

The New Right expresses the discontent, dissatisfaction and anger present in society. Some of this anger is towards the progressive gains that have weakened social, gender and sexual hierarchies. But it is also a reaction to a centrism that has meant that in many countries there are no major differences between centre-right and centre-left parties, and to a lack of alternatives and positive images of the future.

Cabildo Abierto members love to talk about “reinstating”. For them, to examine the past is to learn “the whole truth”, which means recognition of the military and those they call the “victims of ‘subversion’”.

To bring back those voices that are — supposedly — absent from the conversation, equating state violence with the violence of political organizations, is to question once again the nature of the coup. To treat what happened in the recent past as emerging from a state of war is to produce a new framing that sidesteps the conservative initiatives of the present. All the political initiatives of the centre-right camp — only some of which are of a legislative nature, such as demanding house arrest (rather than prison sentences) for military figures tried for crimes against humanity — stem from this idea.

Refusing to Forget

Since the return of democracy, successive Uruguayan governments have gone from the theory of the two demons to an insistence on moving on without re-examining, trying, or passing judgement on the crimes of state-sponsored terrorism. The Law on the Expiry of the Punitive Claims of the State, which prevented those responsible for crimes with no statute of limitations from being tried and was only repealed in 2011, codified this attitude into law.

To its credit, the first Frente Amplio government authorized a series of investigations by historians and archaeologists working as forensic anthropologists, yet they faced many limitations in terms of time, human resources, and money, and had to tackle discontinuity and difficulties in accessing official archives.

Crucial progress has been made in investigating and trying crimes against humanity, albeit sometimes more successful than others, thanks to social and human rights organizations, especially Madres y Familiares de Uruguayos Detenidos Desaparecidos, the Servicio Paz y Justicia, the CYSOL association of former political prisoners, the Luz Ibarburu Observatory, and the Instituto de Estudios Legales y Sociales. On the other hand, the referendums to repeal the Expiry Law in 1989 and 2009, both demanded by social organizations, represented failures for the human rights movement, and had a negative impact on the mood of civil society.

The annual Marcha del Silencio along Montevideo’s central Avenida 18 de Julio has grown since it first took place in 1996. In recent years, it has spread to almost all the country, chipping away at the public’s lack of willingness to remember. Although a mass protest bringing together diverse political sectors beyond party labels, it also functions as a space that softens the blow of the coup.

Once a year, society comes together, marches without chanting, cries out “Presente!” as each name on the list of the 197 detained and disappeared is read out, sings the national anthem, applauds, and goes home. The march begins with the question “Where are they?”, but does not challenge in any depth the reasons for the coup nor those responsible for State-sponsored terrorism. The protest exists as a space to ask questions about the disappeared and demand “truth and justice” for them, but fails to include the same petition for political prisoners, the exiled, those who went underground and those who lost their jobs. It is a ritual that honours and recognizes the struggle of those mothers who are still looking for their sons and daughters.

Grim Continuities

In his previous run for the presidency in 2014, Luis Lacalle Pou, son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990–1995) and member of the National Party, said that he believed it was necessary to “close that chapter” of recent history and announced that, if elected, he would “suspend the digs” by forensic anthropologists in search of the remains of the disappeared.

Six years later, on forming the present government, he changed tack and gave assurances that he would provide all the resources necessary for the digs to continue. This about-face was no doubt a consequence of the growth of the Marcha del Silencio and its demands for “truth and justice” in the cases of forced disappearances and for the families of those victims to find out their final resting place.

The mass attendance at the Marcha del Silencio every 20 May, which has grown particularly in the last 15 years, is one of the greatest achievements in the long struggle of human rights organizations and social and political groups, successfully placing the issue of human rights violations during the dictatorship on the public agenda. Regardless of their politics, today no Uruguayan government can ignore the violations of human rights during the dictatorship.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the coup, reckoning and accountability is as pressing as ever, as is the need to address it from different angles, accompanied by a constant protest against the impunity that still exists for the dictatorship’s crimes against humanity.

However, on 15 June this year, Lacalle Pou did not take part in the reparatory ceremony that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanded to recognize state responsibility for the murders of the so-called “April boys”, three Tupamaro women activists killed in 1974, and the forced disappearance of Oscar Tassino, a medical student and Revolutionary Communist Party activist. Vice-president Beatriz Argimón attended on the state’s behalf, calling on those present (mostly relatives of the disappeared, activists, some parliamentarians, and just one member of the Armed Forces) to share any information they had on where the disappeared were buried.

Nonetheless, the consequences and effects of state terrorism often remain obscured in the present day.

In a radio interview on 16 June this year, Uruguayan historian and political expert Gerardo Caetano pondered, “Can it be said that the dictatorship failed?” He immediately replied: “It did not fail entirely: there is still impunity.” This is because many military and civilian figures responsible for the persecution, torture, and disappearance of at least 197 people during the regime have yet to be identified and tried.

At the same time, it is possible to trace some continuity with practices established in the dictatorship. One of them, at the cultural level, is the recognition of gaucho “traditions”, which have increased since 1975 with the so-called “Año de Orientalidad”, or “Year of Uruguayan Traditions”, referring to the traditions of colonial settlers. Another, more brutal, sign of that continuity is Uruguay’s high prison population.

Records indicate that over 5,000 people were imprisoned during the Uruguayan dictatorship. It is believed that at that time, Uruguay had the highest per capita prison population in the world. At present, although there are no political prisoners, mass imprisonment continues to be the national way of resolving conflicts, despite the knowledge that — to date— locking up thousands of people only worsens social inequality and political differences, since there are no social reintegration programmes for the vast majority of the prison population, and alternative measures to imprisonment are rare.

According to the records of the Parliamentary Commissioner, an official whose team monitors the country’s prison situation, on 30 April 2023 there were 14,808 adults in prison (13,720 men, 1060 women, 3 trans men, and 25 trans women) and 41 children. This represents an imprisonment rate of 417 per 100,000 inhabitants, without counting the adolescent population detained in the juvenile penal system. Uruguay’s prisons are overwhelmed at 130 percent capacity, worsening conditions of overcrowding, cruel and inhuman treatment, and the torture of prisoners, as SERPAJ has stated systematically in its annual reports.

Looking Forward

The denialism of the first 15 years after the dictatorship gave way to a structured revisionism that sought to turn the page on the regime’s worst crimes. Today, a clean slate seems practically impossible. On the fiftieth anniversary of the coup, reckoning and accountability is as pressing as ever, as is the need to address it from different angles, accompanied by a constant protest against the impunity that still exists for the dictatorship’s crimes against humanity.

There are many different ideas about what “never again” should concretely mean. Some persist, some vanish, and others change over time. Regardless of how the term is interpreted in the future, it is clear that Uruguay experienced a profound transformation after the dictatorship, and is no longer the country it once was.